Book Reviews - Fiction Short Takes
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I came out during the 1970's and then continued my advocacy for the full citizenship of gay men and lesbian women in Christian churches. Those who knew me from the secular GLBT community told me I was wasting my time. Everyone knew Christianity was the sworn enemy of women, let alone lesbians! And at William Paterson College, it was considerably easier to be out as a lesbian than out as a Christian. But times are changing -- a more nuanced view of religion is emerging in both the LGBT communities and the academic world. And one index of a more mature understanding of religion is the role it plays in many first-rate recent novels written by and/or about lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
I must confess to an almost Puritan disdain for novels that describe seductions with a step-by-step literalness that leaves nothing to the imagination. The novels I am about to mention are wonderfully sensual "reads" precisely because the authors know when to suggest eros through innuendo, metaphor, or discrete silence.
Sirena Silena by Mayra Santos-Febros
Most sensual of all is Sirena Silena (NY: Picador, 2000) by Mayra Santos-Febros, who has lectured at Cornell and Harvard and is an Associate Professor at the University of Puerto Rico. In a hauntingly lyrical style, Santos-Febres describes a beautiful 15 year old effeminate boy who is rescued from homelessness by drag queen Martha Divine and then promoted in San Juan as a mesmerizing transgender singer of boleros. When a wealthy married man falls in love with the feminine loveliness of Sirena Selena, a long, delicate and unforgettable seduction occurs against a backdrop of Pentecostalist and Roman Catholic denial of such forbidden desire. The novel certainly contains plenty of unconventional morality, but that only helps to make the point that, as Sirena's grandmother had insisted, "You don't have to be a certain way to be decent. Decency comes in all colors and all flavors."
Light, Coming Back by Ann Wadsworth
If, at nearly 60, a woman has been happily married for many years to a man 25 years her senior, and while he is dying falls in love with a 30-something lesbian, is she bisexual, or has she belatedly come home to her true lesbian nature? Not that the terminology matters all that much to novelist Ann Wadsworth, the gifted author of Light, Coming Back (Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 2001). Nevertheless, the whole time she spins the tale of Mercedes Medina's passion for the impulsive Lennie and then her developing relationship with Diana, Wadsworth never fails to refer to her protagonist as Mrs. Medina. Perhaps she utilizes this unusual technique in order to insist on the reality of Mrs. Medina's unconditional love for Patrick even after she's fallen for Lennie and even after death has claimed her husband -- because, as Patrick had once asserted, "Love is never trivial." The Medinas worship at the shrine of classical music, while Lennie is involved with a Zen Buddhist community.
But as she ponders "the terror of release from carnal form," Mrs. Medina asks herself a deeply religious question that is typical of the novel as a whole: "What is it that flies steadily under all the events of our lives, carrying us, carrying us? Sometimes we can feel the speed with which we are being borne toward our destination!" Here and everywhere, Wadsworth has exactly the right touch.
Days of Awe by Achy Obejas
One suspects a good deal of autobiography in the gorgeous novel Days of Awe by Cuban novelist Achy Obejas (N.Y. Ballentine Books, 2001). Born in Havana in 1959 on the day Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, the protagonist Alejandra San Jose brought to Chicago where she lives with her family until her translation work takes her back to Cuba. There she discovers that her parents, whom she thought to be Catholic, are actually Jews, like many other Cubans descended from Jews who had been forced into Christian conversion during the Spanish Inquisition. Alejandra struggles with what it means to be both Cuban and American and both Catholic and Jewish. But she does not struggle with whether she is lesbian or bisexual: she simply desires and acts on her desire, first for Seth, then for Leni, then Orlando. Obejas really does write "like an angel" and at 45 seems to be headed for great distinction as the author of outstanding fiction.
Night Work by Laurie R. King
In the world of mystery writing, several out lesbians are high achievers -- Rita Mae Brown and Patricia Cornwell spring to mind. But nobody out-achieves Laurie R. King, whose sexual orientation I do not know but whose detective Kate Martinelli is a happy and fulfilled lesbian. (King also writes excellent novels about Mary Russell, the partner of Sherlock Holmes, but my lesbian self prefers Kate Martinelli and her sweetheart Lee). Not only does King weave into her fiction some of her vast knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Ancient Near East, but her plots and characters are absorbing and magnetic. My personal favorite is Night Work (New York: Bantam, 2002), in which Kali, the Indian goddess of destruction and creation, comes to modern life in "the Ladies of Perpetual Disgruntlement" of San Francisco, who take vengeance on men who commit misogynistic crimes. But equally good is To Play the Fool (also published by Bantam). It was the first book I read by Laurie King, and it hooked me by its theological awareness, its intricate but convincing plot, and its setting in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and Berkeley's Pacific School of Religion.
Bethlehem Road by Nancy Crowe
I richly enjoyed Nancy Crowe's first novel, Bethlehem Road, published in 2002 by the small lesbian-feminist Odd Girls Press of Anaheim, California. I wrote a full-length review of this excellent novel for EEWC Update, the newsletter of EEWC-Christian Feminism Today, a national organization of Christian feminists that needs and highly values its lesbian members (listen up, CLOUT members!) Not only does Nancy Crowe write well: she captures lesbian experience with precision and humor, and she accurately depicts the spectrum of Christian responses to homosexuality, from some of the ignorantly judgmental townspeople of New Bethlehem, Indiana to the kind and supportive pastor of the local Presbyterian Church. A contemporary reworking of the biblical story of Ruth, Bethlehem Road brings to mind such lesbian classics as Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Don't miss it!